Colson Whitehead had been mulling the concept for his novel “The Underground Railroad” for more than a decade before he sat down to write it.
Since around 2000, he’d been thinking about this surreal alternative history that would imagine the network of safe houses that led slaves to the north as an actual train system. But he was fearful of tackling slavery as a subject and of the complex structure the novel would require.
“I was 30 years old, just hanging out every night, so it seemed like I didn’t have the emotional maturity to write about slavery,” Whitehead, who will speak at the Winter Words author series on Tuesday night, recalled in a recent phone interview. “But as the years went on, it stuck with me, which was an argument in its favor. … I think avoiding it was an argument for doing it.”
He had an idea for a more familiar and safer novel about a writer in New York dealing with the new media landscape. But he opted instead in 2014 to attempt “The Underground Railroad.”
Published in the summer of 2016, it became a soaring creative and commercial success as well as a cornerstone of the national conversation about race and white supremacy in the days leading up to the 2016 presidential election and into the early Trump era.
Before the global embrace of “Underground Railroad,” Whitehead was already firmly established as a consequential contemporary novelist, with “John Henry Days” (2001) and “Zone One” (2011) hailed as 21st century classics. He’d earned a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2002. And he’d proven himself fluent across genres and styles, writing smart and funny, as in his immersive first-person nonfiction poker narrative “The Noble Hustle” (2014) and writing smart and sweet, as in his coming-of-age novel “Sag Harbor” (2009).
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But “Underground Railroad” was different. An Oprah’s Book Club pick, it sold upward of a million copies, made Whitehead a literary celebrity, and won him both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize.
“I wouldn’t say the reception made me more confident but it did make me happier to have a book that touched so many people in so many different countries,” Whitehead, 49, said. “It’s a nice affirmation.”
But the post-publication demands of the beloved book and its rapturous reception have changed the way that Whitehead works as a writer. Up until “The Underground Railroad,” he explained, he would devote about nine months to writing a book and doing little else. He simply doesn’t have that kind of time now.
“Having a big stretch of time was a big part of my process,” he said. “But I finished ‘Underground Railroad’ and the year-and-a-half went by and I hadn’t written anything.”
He faced a choice between spending another year or so traveling and speaking and not writing or learning to write a book while balancing it with the new demands of being a very public figure. So, he started writing while he was on the move, pulling out a notebook in train stations and in hotel rooms and learning, as he put it, to “keep going even though that wasn’t my style. … It wasn’t what I was used to. But not working — even if I had all these impediments — seemed untenable.”
Using that process, Whitehead composed his follow-up “The Nickel Boys,” which is due for release this summer. It’s based on the true story of a segregated Florida reform school for non-violent juvenile offenders that was rife with abuse. Set in the Jim Crow south of the 1960s, the book will follow two young African-American inmates with divergent views on how to respond to racial injustice and abuse.
Writing the book, Whitehead said, was an attempt to make sense of what led the U.S. to elect Donald Trump.
“If you want to look at how we can elect a white supremacist president, you can look to slavery but also to Jim Crow,” Whitehead said. “How did all these terrible systems, which seemed to die off, continue to persist and transform in different ways? Continue to terrorize so many people?”
While the book engages with the long arc of America’s racist history that bent toward Trump and a spike in overt public racism, it also, Whitehead added with a laugh, provided an escape from the dizzying Trump news cycle.
“It took my mind off the news and watching CNN compulsively all day,” he said. “It was in some ways retreating from the constant barrage of, ‘What’s he doing now!?’ And also trying to engage with how we got here.”
Filmmaker Barry Jenkins — the visionary behind the Best Picture-winning “Moonlight” and the James Baldwin adaptation “If Beale Street Could Talk” — is in the process of adapting “The Underground Railroad” as a TV series for Amazon. Jenkins and his team are currently scouting location and due to start filming this summer.
Whitehead is excited about it, but has had limited involvement consulting on the Jenkins project.
“Having done it once, I didn’t want to write it again,” he said. “And I know how to write books. I don’t know how to translate things to the screen.”
As a novelist, Whitehead noted, he could pull off the feat of writing a 60-some page section of the novel where Cora is confined for months in an attic in a North Carolina where black people have been outlawed. But, Whitehead said, he wouldn’t know how to tell that story visually. So he’s leaving the job to Jenkins and his team.
“That’s beyond my abilities,” he said. “I talk to them. They bounce ideas off of me. They ask for my ideas about this or that chapter. I think they have a really smart way of doing it.”
Whitehead does still makes time to keep up with new pop culture. Asked what he’s been into recently, he pointed to comic books like the recent limited DC series “Mister Miracle” by Tom King and Mitch Gerads, the TV sitcom “The Good Place” and said he was looking forward to Marlon James’ new fantasy novel “Black Leopard, Red Wolf.”
Whitehead last visited Aspen in early 2011, for an X Games weekend staging of John Wesley Harding’s variety show “Cabinet of Wonders” at the Wheeler Opera House, where Whitehead shared the stage with comedian Eugene Mirman, poet Paul Muldoon, Lemonheads’ frontman Evan Dando, singer-songwriter Juliana Hatfield and others. Whitehead recalled that, between going out in Aspen with his castmates and taking the stage, he spent much of his time here proof-reading his allegorical zombie novel “Zone One” in his hotel.
“I associate Aspen with fun events and also getting some work done,” he said.
This time around, he has a similar agenda: giving his talk on Tuesday and aiming to make headway writing what he described as a new crime novel.
Whitehead got his start in journalism working in the 1990s for late, great alternative weekly The Village Voice. Part of what inspired him to embrace creative nonfiction as a young man, he said, was an early exposure to the works of Woody Creek icon Hunter S. Thompson.
“A lot of what excited me about working there was that second wave of creative nonfiction — taking the techniques of the novel and applying them to journalism and, of course, that’s Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion,” he said.
“The Noble Hustle” brought him full circle, sending Whitehead to Las Vegas for his own dose of fear and loathing and first-person gonzo journalism: “That was my attempt to do weirdo long-form nonfiction and the impulse to do that comes from having older sisters who had Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson books around and going, ‘Hey, what’s this crazy cover?’ And then going inside and discovering these very eccentric, compelling voices and perspectives on America.”
IF YOU GO …
Who: Colson Whitehead
Where: Winter Words at Paepcke Auditorium
When: Tuesday, Feb. 12, 6 p.m.
How much: $25
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; aspenshowtix.com